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Jazz Cosmos: Music and Modern Physics

Jazz Cosmos: Music and Modern Physics
Victor L. Schermer By

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To the memory of Leonard Bernstein, the greatest musical educator of all time, a great conductor and composer who loved jazz and whose televised lectures brought a whole generation of listeners into insightful contact with the music.

Maybe you remember how astrophysicist Carl Sagan's vision of "billions and billions of stars" captured the awesome feeling of seeing the firmament of the heavens, marveling at its beauty and contemplating the incredible universe. Well, strange as it may seem, many of us get a similar feeling of cosmic wonder when we hear a truly great jazz performance. Sun Ra's "intergalactic" ideas about jazz may not be so far-fetched after all. Indeed, striking parallels can be drawn between jazz as a form of musical expression and the universe as understood by modern physics and cosmology.

It's no accident that contemporary jazz musicians themselves have been thinking along these lines. Fred Hersch's album, Night and the Music (Palmetto, 2007) includes tunes such as "Galaxies Fragment" and "Gravity's Pull." At another level, Pat Martino's theory of guitar substitutions derives from his own theory of how the universe all comes together like the numbers on a clock. And his diagrams look like those from a physics or math textbook.

Whether it is the Zen-like rapidity and precision of Martino's articulations on the guitar, the improvisational range of Art Tatum's quick-thinking variations on a single theme, the excursions of Cecil Taylor into new pianistic possibilities, or the subtle dimensions of Miles Davis playing "My Funny Valentine," great jazz performances convey something of the beauty and complexity of the universe as it is perceived by us creatures who are able to see, hear, and investigate the world around us, from the smallest subatomic particles to the "billions" of galaxies and nebulae that inhabit the infinite cosmos that exploded from nothing in a flash of time billions of years ago. Music itself is part of that universe, the conscious human part. And jazz is the growing tip of that music, so in some sense it is at the growing edge of the universe. As far back as antiquity, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras spoke about "the music of the spheres." (Curiously, Thelonious Monk's middle name was "Sphere," And he had an occasional ritual of spinning around like a planet on its axis.) Music, mathematics, and the universe have been connected with one another since ancient times.

Furthermore, the development of jazz parallels the expansion of the universe. Jazz exploded from the "big bang" of a few musicians performing on the streets, brothels, and bars of New Orleans to what is now a multi-faceted genre of art and entertainment that is global, incorporates many motifs and cultures, and has detonated into limitless styles and variations of themes, scales, sounds, instrumentations, emotions, and personal statements with no end in sight. Jazz contains billions and billions of instrumental and vocal moments in a sonic universe that touches our individual and collective consciousness in many ways.

Relativity, Quantum Leaps, and String Theory—How Jazz Mirrors the Universe of Modern Physics

Historically, the structure and function of jazz parallels the evolution of modern physics. The development of musical understanding and the study of the universe have echoed, if not crossed paths, with one another. How do these developments play out? Before exploring some commonalities between jazz and physics, it must be said that physics does not explain jazz or vice-versa. To some extent, acoustics and neuroscience may account for some elements of what we hear and experience as listeners. But jazz is a spontaneous human creation, and the same can be said of science. The feature they share in common is consciousness. Jazz and modern physics came about in the same epoch of history, and the consciousness of that era is manifest in jazz, physics, and a host of other endeavors. Thus, jazz and modern physics are marked by a common sensibility and awareness that emerged around the turn of the twentieth century and has continued to evolve since then.

To grasp some of the parallels between jazz and physics, we have to go back to Isaac Newton, whose three laws of motion once appeared to hold the entire universe in its sway. Jazz has its own "laws of motion" (sometimes called "swing"), and, like modern physicists, they challenge any ideas Newton might have had when the proverbial apple fell upon his head.

From Newton to Einstein


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